Few members of Congress were more pleased to hear President Barack Obama call for an increase in the minimum wage than Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. The two have been working on increasing the minimum wage for years, routinely introducing legislation that would raise it over several years and peg it to inflation.
Their bills have never made it very far in Congress, but they hope this year could be different thanks to Obama’s high-profile endorsement. Now they plan to reintroduce their legislation.
“While we believe the president’s proposal is lower than what is needed, there is no question that last night he threw the door open for a robust discussion on the importance of raising the minimum wage,” the two said in a joint statement released the day after the State of the Union address.
Last year, Harkin and Miller introduced bills that would have incrementally raised the minimum wage to $9.80 an hour. This year, they’re readying legislation that would boost it to $10.10 over the next couple of years, higher than Obama’s proposal of $9 an hour. A Harkin staffer said the bill should be introduced within a few weeks.
Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator at the National Employment Law Project, said advocacy groups met with lawmakers to urge them to set the minimum wage higher in this year’s bill and to index it to inflation. Once the minimum wage is indexed, it will automatically increase every year with no congressional action. As a result, it’s important to set the base wage as high as possible, she said.
Even at $10.10 an hour, “we still won’t have fully recovered the value it had 40 years ago,” she said. At its peak in 1968, the minimum wage was at $10.56 in today’s dollars, Kern said.
The lawmakers are also proposing to raise the minimum wage for tipped workers, which has been set at $2.13 an hour since 1991. The Labor Department defines a tipped worker as anyone making at least $30 a month in tips. But employers must make up the difference if the worker’s tips and salary do not add up to $7.25 an hour.
The legislation, Harkin contended in a USA Today op-ed this week, could create 100,000 jobs from new consumer spending.
The Harkin aide said the senator is “thrilled this is on the agenda.” But the proposal still faces an uphill climb. Asked about the minimum wage proposal shortly after Obama’s speech, Speaker John A. Boehner said it would be a nonstarter.
“When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it,” the Ohio Republican said.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.